Not totally awesome, dudes. The bizarre story behind a TMNT-inspired red-eared terrapin craze that sparked an environmental emergency in the ’90s.
Nearly 30 years ago, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inadvertently triggered an environmental crisis in England. To anyone familiar with the inexhaustible and often unfounded rage directed toward books, movies, and TV shows, you will likely raise your eyebrows at this rather preposterous-sounding statement. Pop culture, after all, is no stranger to getting blamed for all sorts of current events. However, in this case, the allegations are true. Not only that, the problem is something that continues to affect the UK ecosystem to this day, and may cause even more issues when the new Ninja Turtles movie hits theaters this August.
This particular tale begins in 1990. Back then, the Ninja Turtles were one of the biggest franchises in the Western Hemisphere, having spawned comic books, a billion-dollar toy line, and a beloved TV show, along with a soon-to-be-released feature film and multiple corporate sponsorships. Like any massively successful property, the Turtles eventually began influencing its audience in unsuspecting ways. This was no more so in England, where parents found themselves purchasing pet turtles—or in this case, red-eared terrapins, one of the most popular breeds in the world—at the behest of their TMNT-loving children, who likely had high hopes of training the tiny shelled creatures as ninjas and feeding them a diet of peanut butter-and-clam pizza.
Prior to 1990, finding RETs (also called red-eared sliders) in the UK was a lot more difficult. The animal is native to the southern United States and Central America, and is unable to breed in the colder, rainier English weather. However, thanks to the popularity of the Ninja Turtles and rising demand from fans, people began importing them into the country at a much higher rate. An estimated 250,000 terrapins made their way across the Atlantic in the early 1990s—up from 33,000 in the late ’80s—landing in pet shops and then into homes.
Baby terrapins are adorably compact and require seemingly little upkeep, making them the perfect companion for someone looking to further enhance their Ninja Turtles fandom. But, like most impulse buys, many of the adults purchasing them as pets were naively unaware of the size these terrapins would grow into (upwards of 30 centimeters long), nor the amount of maintenance they would eventually require (they often get too big for their original tanks, and also need proper filters and oxygenated plants). Soon enough, children began to lose interest in these once-coveted pets, leaving the responsibility to the parents, many of whom decided that caring for the terrapins would be too much effort. Ultimately, they began releasing the animals into local waterways. Bad idea.
“People just took the terrapins out there thinking they would be OK,” Pauline Kidner, founder of Secret World, a charity that specializes in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of Britain’s orphaned wildlife, tells The Daily Beast. However, as Kidner states, releasing the animals ended up having the complete opposite effect on the environment. Over the next decade, the RETs wreaked havoc on the ecosystem, eating ducklings, small water birds, and other amphibians. Adds Kidner, “They’re quite a voracious animal as far as the diet. They can eat so many things that they are detrimental to the actual balance to the nature and waterways once they get introduced to them.”
Kidner’s organization has been at the forefront of the Ninja Turtles-influenced RET problem since the beginning; the increasing number of terrapins coming into the country in the early ’90s initially alarmed the group. However, it would be another four to five years before Secret World stepped in to do something, when people began tossing the now fully grown pets into the wild in droves.
Obviously, something had to be done, but what? Environmentalists came up with two solutions. First, Secret World teamed with the British Chelonia Group, an organization dedicated to the care and conservation of turtles. Together, the two groups set up the Red-eared Terrapin Education Centre, which included a greenhouse with heat lamps, vegetation, and a pond where visitors could come and drop off RETs. Overall, it was a space to help better educate the public on the destruction these animals were causing.
“Basically we wanted to create something that could accommodate up to about 50 terrapins,” says Kidner. “It’s quite a lengthy business, because before the terrapins actually go into [the center], we want to make sure they’re going to recognize our type of food because sometimes they are fed on very expensive food” from private owners.
Several years later, the British Chelonia Group teamed with another organization, Belgium’s Reptiles et Amphibians de la Nature, which at the time ran a conservation project in Tuscany. According to the BCG, the Belgian foundation eventually sponsored the construction of large lakes with clay walls and wire fencing, which would allow RETs to live in peace and prevent them from harming the indigenous European pond terrapin. The next step: collecting the displaced animals from England and other parts of Europe where the problem had taken root and exporting them to Italy, a country whose climate was more suitable to the animals.
“On a three-year contract, dumped red-ears in Holland, Belgium, England and some other places were caught, collected, health-checked, and microchipped, and with the help of Virgin Express, transported to these man-made lakes which required no expensive heating,” Henry Fenwick, chairman of the British Chelonia Group, said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast.
Perhaps the great irony in all of this is that in the ’80s and ’90s, the Ninja Turtles were one of the most environmentally friendly fictional characters around. In addition to promoting clips during the initial animated cartoon called Turtle Tips, which detailed ways viewers could help save the planet, from protecting the ozone layer to tackling energy-saving issues, the franchise also released a book called ABC’s for a Better Planet, discussing many of the same tactics.
While the problem of RETs has slowed in recent years, Kidner still says she gets phone calls from people looking to get rid of these animals—though that’s certainly a step up from the folks who were just leaving them in the English countryside to their own devices. Nevertheless, Kidner is nervous for what’s ahead. With the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie hitting theaters in August (October, in the UK), she’s concerned that the import numbers could once again arrive at the height they reached in the early ’90s.
“[Purchasing these RETs] very much relies on impulse buys, which I personally think is very wrong,” she says. “I think you should be very measured and considered when you think about having a pet. But to go to these places and see the variety of the animals and be attracted to the tanks and the cages—it’s all there. So you sort of walk in and before you know it you walk out and you’ve got everything you need plus the animal. And then it’s a very short time before the children realize they don’t want them and then it gets left to the parents to see to them.”
Fenwick echoes these sentiments. However, he challenged the creatives behind the new Turtles movie, asking them to take the issue more seriously.
“With a new Ninja Turtle film being released it would be nice if the producers would take some responsibility for the previous craze and would issue a statement pointing out that the Ninja Turtles are fictional cartoon characters and that they do not condone the buying and selling of live red-eared terrapins.”
Sadly, I am not sure producer Michael Bay is going to listen to Fenwick’s advice, but it doesn’t hurt to at least make people aware of the problem. For now, all European environmentalists can do is hope that children and their parents aren’t rash enough to purchase pet terrapins they plan on getting rid of a few years down the road.